‘The Ordinary Acrobat’: a daring young man’s circus obsession
In his new book, “The Ordinary Acrobat,” Duncan Wall examines his obsession with the circus and his discovery of a revived 21st century version of the ancient entertainment. Wall appears March 27 at Seattle’s Columbia City Theater.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Ordinary Acrobat” will appear as part of a “Circus Now” event at 7 p.m. March 27 at the Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle. Sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600). Tickets are $5 at brownpapertickets.com.
‘The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present’
by Duncan Wall
Knopf, 322 pp., $26.95
“Growing up, I had no connection to the circus,” author Duncan Wall says in the opening line of this lively and wide-ranging book that plumbs both circus history and Wall’s own circus encounters. “My ancestors weren’t acrobats or wire-walkers; I’m aware of no Gypsy blood.”
Instead, he was raised in the Midwest, where he played on his high-school soccer team and edited the yearbook. In college, he studied theater. But juggling, acrobatics and clown activity were entirely off his radar.
With those facts set straight, Wall proceeds to tell two tales in parallel.
One concerns his personal introduction to circus arts. This happened via college studies in Paris, where the syllabus included visits to museums, theaters and something called “cirque moderne.” Wall was skeptical about the latter at first. But once exposed to it, he was hooked — so much so that, along with going to as many cirques modernes as he could, he enrolled in a trapeze workshop. The following year, he won a Fulbright fellowship to study at France’s National School for the Circus Arts. “The Ordinary Acrobat” chronicles his progress, some of it mighty bumpy, in a range of circus disciplines.
It also tracks his deepening fascination with the origins, glory days, decline and revival of circuses from ancient times to the 21st century. He talks to anyone he can, tracks down archives and visits haunts of legendary circus figures (where, endearingly, he cleans off commemorative plaques if they’ve been neglected). It all culminates in a visit to Cirque de Soleil’s headquarters in Montreal.
Wall’s eye for anecdote, in both present and past, is sharp. He’s vivid, for instance, on the way that juggling can change your sense of reality.
“Objects developed magnetism,” he writes. “I wanted to juggle everything. ... Nothing was off-limits — pans, pens, books. In the grocery store, I was a mess.” As for the historical record on juggling, did you know that the talents of a female juggler persuaded Socrates that “woman’s nature is nowise inferior to man’s”? Acrobatics yield equally fun and fascinating detail. Wall learns of a 1599 manual by Arcangelo Tuccaro, the official saltarin du roi (“tumbler to the king”) of France’s Charles IX, who couched his treatise as a series of instructive letters to a young acrobat. The book is a touchstone for acrobats.
Meanwhile, in the present, Wall’s attempts at handstands trigger the following exchange, in his limited French, with his downstairs neighbor: “What is all the crashing?” “I am all the crashing.” Wall also gets to the quick of what makes great clowns great. “To be a clown,” he writes, “you have to be attuned to suffering, to how it feels to attempt and fail.”
As circuses grew accessible to the working classes rather than just the elites, Wall notes, their danger-factor was played up. “Acts were no longer billed as ‘skillful’ or graceful.’ They were ‘dreadful’ or ‘stomach churning.’ ” By the early 20th century, circuses were the ultimate pop entertainment.
The advent of movies and television sent them into seemingly irreversible decline. But in the past few decades, thanks in no small part to Cirque du Soleil, a circus resurgence has been under way. Cirque du Soleil’s nightly takings in Las Vegas alone, Wall claims, are greater than all of Broadway’s.
Clearly, there’s more circus history waiting to be made. And Wall, now a teacher of circus history and criticism at Montreal’s École National de Cirque, will be there to chronicle it.
Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.